If there’s a more stylish pick than the Georgia set, we’re unaware of it; Atlanta United’s signings and hirings have captured the imagination of Major League Soccer.
Owner Arthur Blank started with hiring Darren Eales away from Tottenham Hotspur, and Eales brought technical director Carlos Bocanegra and coach Tata Martino. That’s a who’s who with experience in the Premier League, La Liga, the UEFA Champions League, and, yes, MLS.
The attack is going to be outrageous: Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez are signings that wouldn’t look alien in the world’s top leagues, and Kenwyne Jones likely still has plenty to give. There’s also wunderkind Andrew Carleton, but who knows how much time he’ll see.
Chilean veteran Carlos Carmona is a huge pick-up to steady the center of the park, and Michael Parkhurst is going to know how to get a team arranged well before Brad Guzan arrives from Middlesbrough. Depth, league experience, and cohesion will take some time, but ATL UTD will be both fun and competitive. A playoff game, maybe even one at home, isn’t out of the question.
What the Loons lack in flash compared to their expansion rivals they make up for in organizational experience. United has been running its house for years in the NASL, founded in 2010.
Longtime leading scorer Christian Ramirez and ex-USMNT man Miguel Ibarra are among the Minnesota players who can help new faces adjust to town, and the Loons have done well in grabbing a mix of vets and new MLS faces.
Joshua Gatt may be the most interesting, as the promising attacker saw his career arc cut down by a series of injuries in Europe. Along with Orlando City stalwart Kevin Molino and ex-Montreal man Johan Venegas, there are a number of options who may shine in a new spot (Molino seems to be the odds-on favorite).
Adrian Heath is the boss and will have to prove that he can take a club to the next level, but for now Minnesota will be pleased to have a boss who navigated a very similar channel when Orlando went from the USL to MLS.
The Loons will have to work well to compete for a playoff spot out West, but should have more than their fair share of highlights on the road through their first campaign in the country’s top flight.
Big name Designated Players have departed, two new teams have arrived, rivals are battling for dominance and plenty of young, exciting DPs are about to arrive, not to mention plenty of top young talent coming through the academy setups.
Somehow, we’ve managed to whittle things down into a concise roundtable which debates plenty of the intriguing topics coming up in MLS in 2017.
Let’s chat MLS.
What are your thoughts on the switch from veteran DPs in MLS to a bigger emphasis on young talent? Is it a good or bad move for the league long-term?
Joe Prince-Wright: I’m intrigued to see how this goes. DPs have put fans into the stands over the past 10 years but you’d like to think those supporters would now turn up regardless of Lampard, Beckham, Pirlo or Henry playing. It’s hard to get this one right with big markets still craving star names. I think that improving the overall quality of the league most now be the gameplan rather than have two or three world class talents and then leaving the rest of the squad lagging behind. Make no mistake, this is a big shift in policy. I’m pretty certainty that most MLS markets are now established enough to cope without having huge names on the pitch. Long-term this will pay off, especially for the U.S. national team, but only if these young academy products and DPs are given the chance to play regularly.
Andy Edwards: It’s 100 percent necessary. MLS is past the point of novelty popularity grabs. Without spending Chinese Super League-type money, they’re not going to improve the very top of rosters, thus it’s roster spots 4 through 10 that need to close the gap on the three or four Designated Players from each team. Could you do that by paying mid-30-somethings 3 and 4 and $5 million per season? Sure, you could, or you could invest a fraction of that money into a promising youngster who’ll 1) produce on the field in the now, and 2) see his value increase a year or two down the road.
Matt Reed: Casual supporters may not have as great of an awareness for a player like Miguel Almiron in comparison to David Villa, but it’s shows the league is willing to put forth a better overall product by getting younger and developing more players. In the long term, I believe that’s what MLS needs in order to sustain its success. The league is always going to have its stars, particularly in the larger markets, but it’s important that clubs bring in these younger DPs in order build their rosters for 5-10 years as opposed to 2-3 years.
Nicholas Mendola: I think it’s here to stay, and a good thing. That said I do believe there is still a need for big names who can still play (Look what Frank Lampard did when healthy). My worry is the same as it is for most leagues: Getting carried away with a trend and assuming that’s “how it is now”. I remember when the Anaheim Ducks won a Stanley Cup and all of the sudden “rough and tumble fighting teams are back!”. Didn’t quite pan out that way for the long-term. That’s obviously a different scenario in so many ways — let alone the lack of knives bolted to soccer players’ feet. MLS is on its way, but it still isn’t mission accomplished. That’s another lesson the league should take from hockey.
Kyle Bonn: I love it. Not only is Major League Soccer switching from big-name but aged stars, they’re buying smart. Miguel Almiron is 23. Cristian Colman is 23. Josef Martinez is 23. These purchases will go a long way, not only to build the league over time, but to give important players time to adapt to Major League Soccer, which is always a key.
Which conference is stronger: East or West?
JPW: I think the West is very, very strong once again. Six of the top nine teams in MLS last season were from out West but I am expecting a fightback from the Eastern Conference this season. NYC FC, Red Bulls, Toronto, Philly and even Atlanta can easily compete with the best from West.
AE: It’s still the West when a team with as much talent as the Timbers can’t crack the playoff field in 2016, when 60 percent of each conference’s teams qualified. They reloaded, the six teams ahead of them reloaded, the handful of teams behind them reloaded.
MR: The West has typically received the accolades of being the strong conference in the past, but I like the depth of the East better this season. Considering both New York clubs will be strongly in the mix once again, Toronto is easily the favorite to win the conference and then you throw in Atlanta, Montreal, D.C. and Philly.
KB: The Eastern Conference will be more competitive, but there are fewer truly great teams. The Western Conference is probably better, both with overall better teams and slightly deeper, but there’s a clear cutoff around #7, with more bad teams as well.
Looking at the two new boys in Atlanta and Minnesota, which teams is set up for initial success? And which team do you think will have more success in MLS in the future?
JPW: To start with, they’ve gone about things very differently. Minnesota will try to be a team first effort and Adrian Heath has gone for a mixture of players who know MLS well, others from the Loons’ NASL days and then a sprinkling of unknown foreign talent. Atlanta has gone big with its coach in Gerardo Martino and plenty of star players and promising young DPs from South America. I really like what Atlanta has done. They will be competitive this season and will only get stronger with their fantastic levels of support.
AE: From day one, I like the look of Minnesota a tad more. They haven’t got the brilliant attacking prospects that Atlanta slotted into their three DP spots, but I can look at their squad and slot guys into an actual system. To me, they’ll be the more functional of the two from the start.
MR: I personally love what Atlanta has done with its initial roster. Martino and co. have added young DPs while bringing in experienced players on both ends of the field with Kenwyne Jones, Michael Parkhurst and Brad Guzan, who will arrive over the summer. That’s not to say that Minnesota doesn’t have a good roster but I believe Atlanta will be better out of the gate.
NM: I’ve seen a lot of people make a case for Minnesota, but the only edge I really see is that their organization has seen the proverbial heat of battle before this season. Atlanta United looks like a team that can compete for a home playoff match, while I believe Minnesota will struggle to be in the playoff mix in Year One. I’d be thrilled to be wrong for the sake of the Loons!
KB: I think Atlanta wins in both regards. They’ve clearly had more resources to work with, which is a bit unfair, but they have bought both smart and gone big at the same time. What a first season they should be set up for. The Eastern Conference could be a total jumble, but I think they make the playoffs.
Who is your under the radar team to watch this year, a la Colorado Rapids of 2016?
JPW: Ah, this is tough. I’m going to say the Philadelphia Union. They’ve built a strong squad and I fancy Philly to upset a few people.
AE: The Vancouver Whitecaps finally have a striker, so watch out for them.
MR: I’m not saying the Chicago Fire are going to win MLS Cup but they had themselves a fantastic offseason, and the playoffs could surely be beckoning for the Eastern Conference side. Throw in Nikolic, Dax McCarty and Juninho with one of the younger rosters in MLS and this is a club that could really shock some people in 2017.
NM: Chicago is going to surprise those who haven’t paid close attention to the offseason, and I also think they did a lot of good things under Veljko Paunovic last season despite being young and woefully shallow in depth. I wouldn’t rule out Real Salt Lake, who surprised me as a playoff team last season, making a bigger statement early this season.
KB: Probably the Columbus Crew. People have them all over the map in early-season predictions, but I think they could have a decent shot at a playoff battle if their core of players that went to a Cup final just 2 years ago repeats that performance. They still need to find a proven goalscorer, but if the new signings on defense gel early, they could patch any issues up front.
Which offseason moves have excited you the most?
JPW: Fredy Montero back in MLS, this time with the Vancouver Whitecaps, seems like a great pickup. As Andy mentioned, they’ve struggled to score goals in recent seasons so I believe Montero will get plenty of service. We all know how great of a finisher he can be.
AE: Selfishly, due to proximity, it’s the changing of the guard for Sporting Kansas City. They’re a ton younger in 2017; they’ve got pace and dynamism; and Ilie Sanchez is going to be the best player you’ve never heard of as of right now.
MR: I touched on it before but Miguel Almiron is a really promising pick up in Atlanta. I think the Chicago Fire may have brought in the best player for immediate impact though, with Nemanja Nikolic from Legia Warsaw. He scored over 40 goals in two seasons with the club, and the Fire really lacked a striker last season.
NM: I’ll be interested in seeing how well Brooks Lennon does back home (on loan) at Real Salt Lake. The fact that the youngster just didn’t head out on loan with a League One or League Two side is intriguing, and his play in U-20 World Cup qualifying has been bonkers. Aside from him, I’m interested to see how Nemanja Nikolic (Chicago), Romain Alessandrini (LA Galaxy), and Chris Mavinga (Toronto) fare with their new clubs.
KB: Atlanta. For a team that started from scratch, they’ve done an incredible job getting prepared to compete immediately.
Toronto, New York City FC, FC Dallas, LA Galaxy: Which team has a better chance of winning MLS Cup?
JPW: Something just tells me that New York City FC will kick on once again this season. Yes, they will miss Frank Lampard’s goals and experience from midfield but I think Jack Harrison will take on a leading role and with David Villa around I believe they have the X-Factor. Now, Patrick Vieira just has to figure out his defense.
AE: FC Dallas amassed a squad of talent the likes of which we’ve never seen in MLS. They’ve got two legitimate starters at all 10 outfield positions, allowing them to take CONCACAF Champions League extremely seriously early on, while not squandering points in league play. When the injuries and/or fatigue sets in come summer, they’ve got the depth to not miss a beat.
MR: I’d lean more towards Toronto because they were on the verge of hoisting the cup a season ago and if Jozy Altidore can stay healthy once again, it makes it so difficult for opposing defenses to get multiple bodies around Sebastian Giovinco.
NM: Toronto or New York City. While I don’t expect TFC to truly compete for the Supporters’ Shield thanks to international team commitments, either of these teams will be a hassle in the playoffs.
KB: FC Dallas. They came close last year, but ran into the hot team. They’re the most reloaded again this season
Who gets more goals this season: Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa or Giovani dos Santos?
JPW: Sebastian Giovinco. The Atomic Ant has been the best player the past two seasons and he will prove that once again. He and Jozy Altidore will have a lot of fun in 2017.
AE: Villa will be asked to score more than the other two — which he’s clearly capable of doing — but Giovinco’s going to push 40 goals and assists combined this year.
MR: Without Robbie Keane getting the lion’s share of the goals out in LA I’m going to go with Gio dos Santos. He’s battled injuries a bit over recent seasons but when he’s on the pitch he’s dynamic to say the least.
NM: Giovinco will edge Dos Santos thanks to the latter’s Mexican national team commitments (provided Giovinco isn’t back in Italy camp, which seems unlikely). I expect Giovinco to have wild numbers, but perhaps more on the assist side this year as he goes on a scorched-earth campaign having inexplicably been left off of the MLS MVP ballot. That could leave an opening for Villa.
KB: Great question. Giovinco has more goals/assists combined, but Villa probably leads the league again given his target-man position on that team. His goals aren’t nearly as fun though.
What percentage chance do you give the Sounders of repeating their MLS Cup victory and why?
JPW: Eh, I’m going to say 40 percent. I would go higher but it all depends on Clint Dempsey‘s fitness and also on the progression of Jordan Morris. Are we going to see a Sophomore slump from him? Then again, when Nicolas Lodeiro is around you always have a chance of winning games…
AE: I’ll never assign a single team anything above a 10 percent “chance of winning” before the season, because it’s MLS. As for the Sounders specifically, I’m going to have to see how they see best to use Clint Dempsey. I’m not sure he fits into that team right now.
MR: 60%. A healthy Clint Dempsey, a revamped Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro, as well as one of the most underrated backlines and goalkeepers in MLS. This Seattle team can easily muster up another title in 2017.
NM: 20 percent. I’d give a higher number to their odds of taking the Supporters’ Shield, but the playoffs are such a crapshoot. Seattle is the odds-on favorite to come out of the West, but even then a one-game title battle is a 50-50 proposition at best (even at home).
KB: Repeating is nearly impossible, but they’re as well prepared as you can be. Having a fresh Dempsey back is huge, but their defense is pretty thin, which can cause problems.
Which manager(s) are on the hot seat should they have a slow start to the season?
JPW: There are actually quite a few. Houston’s roster looks weak so I’m not sure how long Wilmer Cabrera gets at BBVA. Also, Jeff Cassar at RSL needs a strong start after some big offseason moves. Caleb Porter may be under a little pressure too after the Timbers missed the playoffs last season. He needs a fast start.
AE: Dominic Kinnear needs some progress in San Jose, but no one is more on the hot seat than Caleb Porter. The internal expectations are a little different in Portland, and he could be gone by mid-summer if all that talent is headed for another playoffs-less season.
NM: Dominic Kinnear has been the name most often bandied about, but I’ll look at Jay Heaps in New England as the Revs have underachieved. Given the hype around Portland — which I don’t entirely get — Caleb Porter shouldn’t be too comfortable, either.
KB: Aside from the obvious teams at the bottom, I would say Caleb Porter. With Portland failing to make the playoffs last year, Porter could see trouble if they have a poor start this year. That’s not a team that should be missing the postseason twice in a row.
The team you are most looking forward to watching this season is ______ because ______
JPW: Chicago Fire because I’d love to see them do well. We all know about the fanbase in Chicago. It’s about time they had an MLS team capable of challenging for trophies to get behind.
AE: Real Salt Lake, because the intriguing youngsters who’ll be counted on to assume important roles all over the field — Justen Glad at center back; Bofo Saucedo in midfield; Jordan Allen as a starting winger; Brooks Lennon as the prodigal son in any number of positions; but most notably, Albert Rusnak as the heir to Javier Morales in the no. 10 role. There are a ton of unknowns heading into the season, and there’s a million different ways 2017 could go for RSL.
MR: Minnesota because Atlanta has received the bulk of the media coverage this offseason, and the Loons have put together a pretty solid roster of their own.
KB: Probably LA Galaxy, because they have one of the most dynamic attacks. Giovanni dos Santos is a player we’re all watching grow up from a good player to a great player, and that’s always exciting to see.
Finally, share your wildest dream for this MLS in 2017…
JPW: Both Atlanta and Minnesota United become genuine playoff contenders in their debut season. It’s so tough for expansion franchises but I’d love to see both teams come in and ruffle plenty of feathers.
AE: The Chicago Fire are going to the playoffs in 2017, and I couldn’t be more excited for that franchise and its fanbase to return to relevance.
MR: It’s a league built on parity so it would have to be seeing the Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo in MLS Cup. The two bottom dwellers from a season ago wouldn’t exactly be pulling off Leicester City odds but it would make for great drama.
NM: Michael Bradley begins to follow the Wayne Rooney career hair arc and arrives with a midseason mullet (full-blown, too, not ironic). … Minnesota and Colorado stage a two-legged playoff match, both in an inch or more of snow. … Clint Dempsey leads the league in combined goals and assists per minutes played. … Columbus comes back from its super poor 2016 to win at least two trophies. … Brooks Lennon is leading the league in scoring and on the way to a Rookie of the Year when Jurgen Klopp calls him back for Liverpool preseason, sending Daniel Sturridge back as a makeweight. Sturridge then finishes in the Top Ten in goals despite only playing three months. … Vancouver wins the Cascadia Cup. … Wilmer Cabrera wins Coach of the Year in Houston, but the Dynamo go winless against Dallas.
KB: Giovinco gets a call-up to the Italian National Team. Come on. The guy deserves it, clearly.
Below myself, Andy Edwards, Nick Mendola, and Matt Reed select who will by the MVP this season and explain our picks.
Joe Prince-Wright selects… Sebastian Giovinco — After two seasons of dominance in MLS, it’s hard to see past the Italian playmaker ripping it up again. If he didn’t get injured last season he would’ve easily made it back-to-back MVP titles. Best player in MLS, both entertainment wise and in terms of production, by quite some distance.
Andy Edwards selects… Sebastian Giovinco — With Jozy Altidore healthy and rolling over his late-season formof 2016 into 2017, get ready for some gaudy assist number from the Atomic Ant, as well as a bit more room to operate.
Matt Reed selects… David Villa — NYCFC made several promising attacking moves this offseason, but it’s no secret that the Spaniard is still the focal point of the club’s attack. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Villa puts up over 20 goals and around five assists once again.
Nick Mendola selects… Nicolas Lodeiro — I’ve stated before that I believe Sebastian Giovinco will go on a scorched earth campaign having been inexplicably been left off the MLS MVP finalist ballot, but then I remembered that Seattle’s Uruguayan assassin was nearly as impressive while adjusting to a brand new league. On a loaded Sounders roster which should compete for a Supporters’ Shield, no voter will be able to sleep on Lodeiro this season.
Kyle Bonn selects… Sebastian Giovinco — See above. Simple.